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If streets can be said to have tipping points, then 14th Street is surely teetering on the brink, brimming with the shiny things that new money buys while clinging mightily to the strange stuff that has characterized the thoroughfare for decades. This holiday season, it’s possible to purchase mink clutches and plastic purses, cashmere toques and baseball caps, without ever having to leave the street.
Around Union Square, there’s barely a whisper of the landmarks that once identified the area: Luchow’s and the Palladium, Tad’s Steaks and Korvettes have been replaced by NYU dorms and the Virgin Megastore, Strawberry’s and Foot Locker and Bradlees. Still, some old dogs refuse to lie down: Discount Jackpot (30 East 14th) continues to feature whorehouse-worthy $1.99 bras and panties, giant suitcases on wheels, and the quintessential 14th Street item, the religious wall hanging ($2.99). Once this place and others like it have disappeared, you won’t be able to find an Infant Jesus of Prague wall hanging for love or money, which might not seem like such a tragedy until you pass the empty hulk of Woolworth’s a few doors down and remember its rough candy smell and its rare mix of merchandise.
Still you may argue, I don’t want to give my friends Last Supper tapestries and dollar girdles for Christmas—in which case the temporary holiday fair, set up in red-and-white striped tents just south of the farmers’ market, offers more conventional presents. At a booth called Egyptian Treasures, impossibly delicate perfume bottles in pink and blue glass are two for $5. Chick’s Accessories has bejeweled bobby pins at $4, though you may decide to splurge and buy three for $10. Indigo-colored monkeys wearing suits and dresses, made by a cooperative run by nuns for a company called Eco Toys, are appealing without being saccharine and cost $12, about the same amount as the hand-colored 19th-century streetscape from Valentine’s Manual at Pageant Books and Prints. Not everything at the market is so inexpensive: A designer named Ruth Dorsla makes fringed, cut-velvet shawls that would have suited patrons of Tiffany & Co., when it was located just across Union Square. A spectacular eau de nile and violet example is $150.
On the other hand, nice as they are, the goods at this market may not scream “Christmas on 14th Street” quite as loudly as you’d hoped. For a more authentic experience, the American Value Center (22 West 14th) can supply snowman touch lights ($1.99), plastic placemats depicting a variety of putti (two for $1), and, for the singular life of the party, a blinking reindeer nose (99 cents). Next door, Dee & Dee (22 West 14th) has its own impressive share of holiday-themed merchandise, including false-bottomed liquid soap dispensers with tiny Santas floating on a bilious blue sea ($2.99).
Between Seventh and Eighth avenues, the mood is rather more sophisticated. Though there are plenty of gold nameplates and puffy toddlers’ dresses, there’s also Libreria Lectorum, an elegant Spanish-language bookstore selling everything from Frank McCourt’s Les Cenizas de Angela to Dr. Seuss’s ¡Como el Grinch Robó la Navidad! (14.95). Upstairs at Time Machine (207 West 14th), an equally well-organized shop, the dazzling selection contains comics from Marvel to Mickey and is clearly intended for connoisseurs, but there are some things that may appeal to people on your list, like the December 1968 issue of 16 magazine, with a cover that reads “Davy Monkees: Our Hates and Loves” and “Raiders Break-up!?” At $14, it’s $13.75 more than it cost 32 years ago. Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material Store (242 West 14th) also serves a specialized clientele, though the ambience is a good deal less welcoming: A reminder on a vitrine containing faded movie stills reads “Nothing to Be Sold From Showcase Unless Jerry OK’s It.” Over the door to the back room it says “All Photos Ordered From Books Must Be Purchased,” while a third missive informs patrons that shoplifters will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. (It’s hard to imagine there’s much of a black market in $15 Clockwork Orange lobby cards.)
The first sign that things are really changing at the far western end of 14th Street is a literal one: It reads “To the Trade,” and it’s on the door of Fortune Antiques and Decorations (342 West 14th), a showroom with what looks like a Renaissance Madonna and child in the window. Across the cobblestoned street, on a block that until recently housed Jackie 60 and Dizzy Izzy’s N.Y. Bagels, a tense truce exists between meat packers and arriviste art dealers. At Jeffrey (449 West 14th), a spacious white clothing store that the word upscale doesn’t come near describing, an excess of holiday generosity has resulted in some items being marked down. These include an ecru-colored leather tank top by Emanuel Ungaro with an appliquéd beaded butterfly on its chest that has been reduced from $2020 to $1212, and a man’s brown-and-white velvet Gucci jacket that was $4875, is now $2871, and has a pattern that recalls the Y cutout on old subway tokens.
Had you a modern version of one of those tokens, you could leap on a bus, travel clear across 14th Street to Avenue B, and erase the memory of Jeffrey by visiting a dusty venue dripping with an antique charm that Discount Jackpot and Dee & Dee only hint at. At Yes, This Is Charlie’s (532 East 14th), decrepit wooden tables hold bins that seem to have been in place since D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Studios opened at 11 East 14th Street a little less than a century ago. Charlie’s merchandise, eclectic to say the least, leans heavily to 69 cent greeting cards, and horoscope mugs, and paper plates, but no one can accuse him of ignoring the date: $1.39 buys a tiny plaster crèche ready to nestle in a window of the Jacob Riis houses or beneath the grandest tree in the meatpacking district.